In recognition of mastery

The pursuit of mastery is an inherently personal and individual endeavor, carried out for the personal satisfaction and gratification it brings. Ideally, our genius and passion will lead to mastery that has a purpose. Occasionally our achievements will be recognized within our personal and professional communities, but most people don’t pursue mastery looking for this recognition.Fields Medal

The International Mathematics Union has announced the 2006 winners of the Field’s Medal in recognition of “outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement.” This may have gone mostly un-noticed in the mainstream (ie, non-math or science related) media except for one fact: winner Grigori Perelman declined the award.

A reclusive Russian won an academic prize Tuesday for work toward solving one of history’s toughest math problems, but he refused to accept the award — a stunning renunciation of accolades from his field’s top minds.

[That the Fields Medal awards would have gone mostly unremarked is evident by the omission of the names of the other three winners in the above referenced CNN.com story.] The CNN.com story goes on to remark that Perelman also seems “uninterested in a separate, $1 million prize” offered for solution of the Poincare Conjecture. The same theme was also the basis of the story Mathematician Declines Top Prize on NPR’s Morning Edition (where I first learned of it).

Instead of focusing on the content (according to the NPR story, only 20 people in the world fully understand the proof of the Poincare Conjecture) and the context (it took nearly 100 years to solve) of Perelman’s achievement, most accounts seem to highlight how odd Perelman is for not accepting an award for what he has accomplished. Unfortunately, I think this reflects the ever-prevalent emphasis in today’s culture (at least in the United States) on achieving not mastery but fame and fortune. It boggles the mind to think that someone could be the best in the world at what they do and not ‘cash in” on it.

Fortunately not everyone is looking at it that way, as evidenced by these – and other – comments from bloggers:

The way I see it, it’s his choice of how he wants his name presented, with or without the accolades. Moreover, he certainly doesn’t need a committee to tell him he’s one of the smartest minds on the planet. Go Grigory!

Someone who is not working for the money! File this one under “We need more men like this!”

But it seems that out of all Fields medal winners, Perelman has attracted the most attention by refusing his award. Which is ironic, as he refuses awards because he does not want the attention.

Though I’m sure Perelman’s motives are different (but I don’t know for sure), this also brings to mind the actions of Benjamin Franklin. With all of the ideas he came up with, all the inventions he invented, and all the knowledge he created, Franklin never patented anything, believing that the knowledge should be free to inspire others.

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